Shadowy Panamanian Firm Bought Contra Planes
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Two cargo planes tied to Nicaraguan Contra supply operations were bought by a Panamanian corporation early this year in Canada, the former owner of the aircraft says.
Jean Pronovost, president of Propair Inc. of Rouyn, Quebec, said Tuesday he sold two DHC-4 ″Caribou″ cargo planes to a Panamanian company and one plane was subsequently registered in El Salvador, where the Contra supply network is reportedly based.
The purchase of the planes and other new evidence revealing a substantial Contra supply effort suggest that the operation had access to large amounts of money despite a two-year congressional ban on U.S. government assistance to the Contras.
Although the ban ended last weekend when President Reagan signed a bill giving $100 million in aid to the Contras, congressional investigators are examining the possibility that the administration may have illegally assisted the rebels over the past two years.
Pronovost, in a telephone interview, refused to divulge the selling price of the two planes or identify the buyer beyond calling it ″a numbered company in Panama,″ a corporation known to him only by a set of numbers. He said the buyer paid the ″market rate″ for the planes, which he estimated at between $400,000 and $525,000 each.
Pronovost said the purchase was a ″cash transaction″ with the money transferred by wire into his bank account. Panama has banking and corporate laws that guarantee tight secrecy on customer transactions.
The Reagan administration and the Contras contend that money for supplies came from private sources. However, some administration officials and Contra leaders, insisting on anonymity, have said the fund-raising network was indirectly managed by the White House and relied heavily on countries receiving U.S. military assistance.
Published reports have repeatedly named Saudi Arabia as a financial backer of the Contras. In Tuesday’s editions, the San Francisco Examiner reported that in early 1984, CIA Director William J. Casey urged Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd to provide covert funds for rebels in Nicaragua and Angola.
The Examiner, basing its story on information from a U.S. businessman who asked not to be identified, said Casey made the request aboard a yacht off the French Riveria on a cruise that ended Feb. 19, 1984.
Asked for comment Tuesday, CIA spokeswoman Kathy Pherson said, ″the story is false.″
Documents captured by the Nicaraguan government from a C-123 cargo plane shot down in southern Nicaragua on Oct. 5 indicate that a small air force of supply planes was landing regularly at Contra bases or dropping supplies from the air. The Contras are fighting to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist government.
A log book kept by Wallace B. Sawyer, an American pilot who died in the Oct. 5 crash, shows a DHC-4 listed as ″23″ using El Salvador’s Ilopango military airfield and another field designated as ″AGU,″ apparently Aguacate, a U.S.-built airstrip used by the Contras in eastern Honduras.
Between March 24-28, the plane, flying out of Aguacate, took part in 10 missions marked ″ops,″ common shorthand for military operations. During that period, Nicaraguan government troops had crossed into Honduras to attack Contra base camps.
According to records at Canada’s Ministry of Transport, Propair, based in the city of Rouyn in western Quebec province, sold a DHC-4 with the serial number 23 in February 1986, and the licensing for the plane was then shifted to El Salvador.
Propair president Pronovost said that plane was one of two that he sold to the Panamanian corporation. He said a second DHC-4, with Canadian markings CGJLP, was sold about a month later.
Sawyer’s log book shows him flying to the Rouyn airport via Detroit and Montreal on April 9 and then out of Rouyn on April 11 aboard a DHC-4 identified with the Canadian markings, CGJLP. After several stops at American airports, the plane flew to Ilopango on April 30, the log book said.
Although Pronovost said he had notified the Canadian government of the second sale, Ed LaFontaine, an official at the Ministry of Transport, said government records show that DHC-4 still registered to Propair.
In another development, a man identified by captured American Eugene Hasenfus as helping run supplies to Nicaraguan rebels apparently is a Cuban exile who had been jailed in Venezuela for allegedly bombing a Cuban jet, The Miami Herald reported Tuesday.
Quoting unidentified sources, the Herald said the man identified by Hasenfus as Ramon Medina, who helped direct Contra supply operations, is actually Luis Posada Carriles.
In Managua last week, Nicaragua Deputy Interior Minister Luis Carrion Cruz said Hasenfus, who was captured when the cargo plane was shot down, also identified Medina as Posada.
Posada, a Bay of Pigs veteran, had bribed his way out of a high-security Venezuelan prison in August 1985. He was awaiting trial for participating in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that took 73 lives. Posada always claimed innocence in that case.